Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

I always thought Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) was an unlikely classic. I remember reading it once as a kid and never returning to it. Re-reading it as an adult, the story is a coincidence-driven ersatz folktale, a watered-down Pied Piper with a glued-on happy ending. The Caldecott is inexplicable. (My attempt at explanation: According to Wiki, Steig had been a New Yorker cartoonist for 30 years before turning to children’s books, of which Sylvester was one of the first. The thrill of a whole book full of New Yorker cartoons must have been too much for voters.) But classic it is. It remains in print, listed by amazon in “children’s classics” and selling well enough to be ranked an order of magnitude higher than other Caldecotts of that era.

Re-reading it as a parent, centering a children’s book on the horror of a missing and imprisoned child is jaw-dropping. I pulled the original New York Times review, from February 16, 1969. The only sentence devoted to the parents: “At home, his mother and father keep a sad vigil, life for them no longer has any kick.”

A couple of great magazine articles made me think more about Sylvester. The first is Caitlan Flanagan’s (born 1961) personal recollection of growing up in the 1970s and the Hearst kidnapping on February 4, 1974. Here she talks in the intro about her own elder sister:

If you had asked my mother about the greatest sorrow of her adult life — losing her daughter for so many years — she would have sighed and looked away, and then pronounced a single, defeated phrase. Her answer would be incomplete; it would not reflect the tensions in her own household, but it would be true, nevertheless. All of the mothers of all the missing daughters said the same thing back then, with the same mixture of loathing, despair, and impotent anger. What had happened to turn that lovely daughter against you? “The culture.”

The Beatles’ “She’s leaving home” was released in mid-1967. There’s some interesting background on the wiki page:

“John and I wrote ‘She’s Leaving Home’ together. It was my inspiration. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found, there were a lot of those at the time, and that was enough to give us a story line… she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up … It was rather poignant.” […] When she returned home, she was pregnant and had an abortion.

February 1969 was an arguable high point for postwar American society: on the brink of the moon landing, the end of the long continuous 1960s economic growth, the end of real wage growth forever. Crime had doubled over the 60s but the “story” was the clash of the generations. “We gave these children the magic pebble,” a parent of a baby boomer could think. “They had whatever they wanted, but they squandered it and wished themselves away.”

The 19-year-old Hearst was a little gone: self-imposed exile from the family mansion in Hillsborough, living in Berkeley with her boyfriend. But then she was real gone: abducted, raped, tortured, brainwashed, tried, convicted. Her sentence was only commuted by the president on January 29, 1979.

I try to read every Texas crime piece Skip Hollandsworth writes but this one, about Dean Corll, the serial killer of teenagers in Houston in the early 1970s and the trauma that continues to this day, is hard to top. (It’s also very hard to read.) Corll was shot by one of his forced accomplices on August 8, 1973.

Within a week, the remains of 27 young males had been found, a couple of them as young as thirteen, one as old as twenty. The New York Times quickly labeled the killings “the largest multiple murder case in United States history” — the phrase “serial killer” had not yet been coined

The phrase serial killer had not yet been coined. As Bill James points out in his excellent crime book, into the 1970s most police simply refused to believe that serial killers existed.

How… was it possible that so many boys could have been snatched away from one working-class area of Houston, a mere two miles wide and three miles deep, without anyone — police, parents, neighbors, teachers, or friends — snapping to what was happening?

The cops thought that if a kid was missing he must have run away, lured away by the “culture.” One horrifying detail among many is that Corll forced many of his victims to write a note to their parents saying they’d left town with friends and found work.

The most flabbergasting aspect of the entire story, however, is that it is almost completely forgotten today…. the public soon became fixated on the more-media-accessible killers who followed him, … and John Wayne Gacy, the killer clown who broke Corll’s record when he murdered 33 Chicago-area boys between 1972 and 1978.

By the end of the 1970s no one doubted the existence of serial child-killers any more. Violent crime had redoubled. Etan Patz disappeared on May 25, 1979, ten years after Sylvester was first published. It’s easy to lampoon today’s paranoid helicopter parent culture. But the current perseveration has its origin in this era when predators flourished.

In Sylvester the Piper’s spell is undone. The rock wall reopens. The child is returned exactly as he was.

A feel-good version of a classic tragedy becoming briefly popular is not unknown. (Steve Martin’s Cyrano-in-simple-syrup “Roxanne” comes to mind.) But Sylvester came along at this moment when the 60s was giving way to the 70s, when the “battle of the generations” gave way to the “fight against crime.” Sylvester was there, its patina growing with each new affront and its reverberation. What seemed whimsical to the reviewer in 1969 seems borderline unprintable to me as a parent 40 years later. Between those points are so many parents and future parents living through the weird and horrifying details we’ve now forgotten. A few odd scraps endure for us to puzzle over, like Sylvester’s pebble and Patty Hearst’s carved monkey.


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